Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The tragedy of modern management approaches

Over the last few years I have tried to argue consistently and persistently that what are now classified as modern management and associated performance management systems no longer work.

In arguing, I have used case after case, many drawn from my own experience if somewhat disguised. I have also tried to show how the current simplistic almost mechanistic approach to management in general, public policy in particular, cannot work at a principal level.

Just at present we are dealing with the after effects of a huge and systemic collapse in the global financial system directly associated with the way that the performance of very clever people was measured and rewarded. We note this, but then go on to do more of the same at an ordinary operational level apparently far removed from the financial crisis.

Worse, in looking at the responses to the crisis, at ways of preventing it happening again, we actually apply the answers (a rush to regulation) that have helped create the crisis the first place. We do not properly ask why it happened, nor do we address the fact that, at least as I see it, the crisis was centrally due to management failures.

In this post, I want to pull together a few examples of what is wrong. In each case, I will provide a statement of the problem, and then illustrate by an example.

I have written about the increasing rigidity of our systems, about the way in which manager's and professional's freedom to respond to changing needs had been reduced.

To illustrate the point, I took the example of a "modern" public organisation. I pointed to the way in which cascading performance agreements and associated reporting requirements increasingly locked managers into rigid responses. I pointed to the impact of centrally imposed priorities further reduced freedom and flexibility. I suggested that this problem was made worse by increasingly complex hierarchical decision processes.

On 29 March,Indigo Jo blogs reported on a tragic UK case in Target culture and the low rape conviction rate.

The facts appear simple enough. Sexual assaults occurred in 2001 and 2002. The perpetrator was not caught, going on to commit more crimes.

Upon later official inquiry, however, it appears that the offender could easily have been identified and prosecuted. It seems that it did not happen because the official priority at the time was on car crimes. Resources were simply not available.

There are always priorities. However, in a well managed system, an official or manager faced with a problem is expected to seek help and additional support. Once priority setting becomes so rigid as to preclude this, systems fail. This appears to have happened in this case.

We live in a measurement world, one of targets and key performance indicators. However, these indicators do not of themselves necessarily say anything about real performance.

The NSW Government announced a State Plan overloaded with performance indicators. When I analysed this against New England's needs, this is the area of NSW I know best, I concluded that even if every performance indicator was achieved, the outcomes would not address New England's problems. 

In somewhat similar vein, when I looked at Mr Rudd's Bridging the Gap proposals to intended to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, my gut feeling was that they were statistically unachievable because they were based on national averages.   

Even if this were not true, the approach will still fail for reasons I have also outlined: they fail to take into account the variety in Indigenous conditions.

A key problem with rigid performance indicators is that they force people to comply with them regardless of on-ground reality. In worst cases, people lie.

At Shellharbour Hospital in NSW:       

On April 28, 2006, Shellharbour Hospital boss, Michael Brodnik, distributed an email. A decision had been made, he wrote, to set up a new unit within the emergency department.

"The unit will be … four beds, conceptually down the right hand wall of ED but using the concept of 'virtual beds'," he told colleagues. Patients who arrived at emergency and needed admission would be assigned a virtual bed if no official in-patient bed was available, remaining physically in emergency. Brodnik said he had no control over the change, reassuring staff: "It really is a paper exercise."

The rationale was to get patients off the emergency department's books within eight hours of arrival - a watershed imposed by government as a so-called "key performance indicator" or KPI, amid political pressure over backed-up hospitals and ambulances unable to offload patients.

It appears from the story that Dr Simon Leslie who revealed the case to the Garling Inquiry has been punished for his temerity.

In a similar case down in Victoria, it appears that the Royal Women's Hospital has been falsifying waiting lists for a number of years in order to meet Government imposed KPIs.

When managers and professionals feel the need to falsify data, you know that there is a problem and at several levels. It's not just the manager, its also those who place pressure on him or her.

We create measure after measure after measure after measure.

Leave aside the compliance and reporting nightmare, if we abolished this in schools we could perhaps add 3,00 teachers for the same money, its the climate.

We are all to blame for this.

In playing to our concern over child sex abuse, the NSW Government introduced mandatory reporting requirements whose load brought the entire NSW child welfare system to the point of collapse.

The victims were children at real risk. Their fate led to an inquiry that in some ways simply confirmed what most people knew. 

Will things change? I don't think so, at least for the present. I think that it is going to take more failures, more tragedies, before we recognise that our own management and political approaches lie at the heart of the problem. 

Monday, March 30, 2009

Tingha Community Regeneration Continues

In Tingha - a case study in community regeneration I reported on a new bottom-up initiative to rebuild Tingha, a small community an hour's drive north west of Armidale, 15 minutes drive west of Inverell.

Community facilitator Bob Neville has just sent me the latest newsletter. It's not on line yet. I will provide a link once it's up.

The Tingha story is really quite inspiring. This is the type of work that has a direct impact on people's lives at local level.

I will do some linked stories on the project a little later. For the moment, I just wanted to record the fact that that there has been progress.

And congratulations to all those involved for Tingha's success in winning a special judges' prize and $16,000 in the national $100,000 Me-Change competition.

The competition, run by ABC Rural and ABC Sport in conjunction with the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, will help 10 small communities tackle local problems such as obesity and social isolation.


Webmiz Christine advises me that the link is now up. You will find the latest newsletter here.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Essay - notes on current reading and writing

Major floods in the US, a dam break in Jakarta, both major events bringing tragedy to many. They are a reminder of the way in which nature can sweep all away.

In Saturday Morning Musings- Australian prehistory I talked about past shifts in Australian sea levels and climates. In reading, I was struck by the size and variation in past sea levels and climatic shifts.

Much of the discussion about the effects of climate change focus on the impacts as projected by the models. I think that it is equally interesting and perhaps as useful to look at the past.

Here I am not talking about the past in the context of the climate change debate, but about what the past actually tells us of the timing, scale and effects of changes.

Over the last twenty one or so thousand years, sea levels have moved in perhaps a 136 metre range, from 134 metres below current levels to two metres above.

Generally the changes have taken place over millennia, imperceptible to those living at any point. However, around 13,000 years ago there was a major surge; sea levels rose 25 metres in 1,000 years, 2.5 metres every century, 25 millimetres a year.

Writing about this made me wonder about the wisdom of some of the planning responses to climate change. However, that's another story.

The long period of human occupation of what is now Australia, as well as the continent's relative isolation, make the continent a fascinating case study in human cultural and physical evolution.

The 5,500 or so years since the first invention of writing are only a small part - a few percentage points - in the life of the current human species. Australia is a window into a now vanished past.

As one outcome of my training reading, I have been meaning to write a summary of Australian pre-history - the Wikipedia article is not too bad, but doesn't really bring it out as a story and is also affected to some degree by current events. I don't know about you, but I find things easier to understand and remember if told as a story.

From my viewpoint, I am most interested in the Holocene period and especially the last few thousand years. Aboriginal cultures were not static, and this most recent period was a period of very major change in Aboriginal Australia. 

Drawing from Geoffrey Blainey, Long, lean, lanky - Australians' changing form discussed the impact of environment and life style on the physical form of Australians.

As an aside, I wonder when the words "unpack" and "push-back" entered Australian English? They are both very popular just at present.

I have always used analyse, deconstruct or un-tangle variously to describe the processes covered by unpack. The word seems to be another example of jargon.

I don't mind unpack because the meaning is quite precise.

Push-back, too, has a precise meaning in the context of negotiations. The other side makes an un-reasonable demand, we should push back. Despite this apparent precision, the word with its sporting overtones makes me quite uncomfortable. I need to think about this to "unpack" - I really do prefer the words specify or define here! - the reasons why.

Returning to Blainey, a fair bit of my reading at present all connects in some way to understanding what I think of as the main fault lines in current thought - areas of difference, of prejudice and about prejudice or intolerance in all its many forms. I am also concerned at the way those fault lines affect our thinking about and writing on our own past.

To understand all this, I have been digging back along a number of dimensions, trying to put my own perceptions aside.

At one level, this is quite impossible.

The very process of reading and writing is an interaction between the material and I. I cannot help responding. A lot of the fun lies in my responses to the material.

What I can try to do, however, is to seek to understand what people thought and meant, to try to define their perceptions. For that reason, I have been deliberately selecting books written at different times and from different perspectives. Not just biographies or travel stories, but also histories.

At times, I have found this quite unpleasant, quite depressing.

In Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle I talked about the links between eugenics, Social Darwinism and varying views towards race, nations and peoples.

Today many people in Western countries, assuming that they were prepared to finish the book, would put it aside as clap trap. Yet Mr Curle's views are back, assuming that they ever left, just in different forms. 

In similar vein, I ended up quite depressed in my exploration of Balkan history because of the way it confirmed the causes and long historical continuity of ethnic and religious divides. 

At other times, I have found my exploration intensely fascinating and quite uplifting.

We humans are funny animals, riven by contradictions, capable of killing our fellows, of immense and conscious savagery. Yet we actually fight against our weaknesses, we aim for improvement, we try to do better. What's more, quite often we succeed!

How, on earth, does all this link back to Geoffrey Blainey and the changing physical form of Australians?

Well, it's now 9.49am. I am going to leave this hanging and come back to it in a later post!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - Muslim prayer rooms and the importance of checking one's facts

It always pays to check one's facts.

Lexcen had a post on the issue of Muslim prayer rooms. This was triggered by the apparent failure of an Australian university to agree to the creation of such a room.

Lexcen's concern lay in what he saw as unreasonable demands that were in fact part of a world wide trend.I responded in a quick comment taking an opposite perspective.

I was in fact surprised at the original story because it seemed to me that the university in question, RMIT in Melbourne, was behaving in a way that was at variance with Australian university traditions.

When I made the comment, my knowledge of the incident was very limited - I had in fact only seen reference to it via Neil's Google reader series. I saw it as a clear cut matter - a university refusing a prayer room. I might have known that it was more complicated than that.

I did a Google search to check my facts on this issue. I did not realise how big a story it had become. I only browsed the first three pages, but that was enough to reveal a complicated situation.

The RMIT Muslim Society considers that the university has reneged on a previous promise.

In late 2007, construction work on the building that contained a dedicated Muslim prayer room meant the facility was demolished. The RMIT Muslim Society believes the university reneged on its promise to replace that with another room.

The mass protests organised by the Society have been backed by other religious groups and attracted considerable publicity.

For its part, the university is obviously quite upset, describing the Society's actions as  "unfortunate and unnecessary". To quote from a 22 March 2009 report in the Australian:

There are already eight Muslim prayer rooms across the university's three campuses, Dr Maddy McMaster, Acting Pro Vice-Chancellor (Students) said.

"The university's policy is that prayer rooms in its spiritual centre are multi-faith, open to bookings by members of all faiths," she said.

Muslims get preferential access to two of those rooms.

"With space at a premium on our city campus, we have bent over backwards to find an amicable solution," she said.

Gestures of good faith have been rejected, she insisted.

"Multi-faith spaces are commonly accepted as supporting a range of religious practices, including those of the Muslim faith.

"It is disappointing that the RMIT Islamic Society chooses to reject established multi-faith principles," she said.

The Society denies that it is opposed to multi-faith principles, a position that seems to be supported by others.

From other reports, the university obviously spent a lot of money fitting out the  multi-faith centre at the main campus to meet Muslim requirements. However, it also seems clear that the university's approach has created on-ground practical problems. 

It is very hard in all this to disentangle the issues involved. However, there are a few points that I want to make.

To begin with, while the case does raise broader issues, it is first and foremost a local issue.

We are not dealing, as I first thought, with a point blank refusal by RMIT to meet a specific student need, nor is this a case of discrimination. The requirement to accommodate Muslim needs has been agreed on both sides. The dispute is all about and only about the adequacy of the university's solution.

Why then, if it is a local issue, has it attracted so much attention? Simply, it plays to a number of the fault lines in current attitudes in Australia and overseas.

I said during the week in Problems with language and definition in public policy that life was too short to always subject things people say to semantic analysis. Yet we need to.

The problem is that we have all become too good for our own good at casting arguments designed to support a case. The concept of truth as a good in its own right becomes lost in the process.

I must say I do despair sometimes.

At least in Australia we are lucky to still have a newspaper industry. Yes, I have been very critical of newspaper reporting because it too is affected by the distortion process. Yet the continued existence of the print media with its core of experienced journalists allows for depth in reporting not possible in the on-line world.

As a writer and commentator I use both the print and on-line editions. Because of my interests, I look not just at the metro media but also regional papers.

As an aside, and this is something that I mean to write about, I have been monitoring the roll-out of the Commonwealth Government's various stimulus packages at local level.

I said early on that the way our Government systems operate meant that you had to add six months to official dates before the capital spend items kicked in. I was about right.

They are now starting to kick in, and the effects are going to be significant.

Returning to my main theme, there is a depth to the print media that is simply not possible in the on-line world. It's not just that there are many stories in the print media that do not make the on-line editions. It's also, and this is especially true for the regional more localised press, the various advertisements.

This is partly how I have been judging the effects of the stimulus packages.

NSW has around $2 billion to spend on the construction of new social housing as a specific stimulus measure. There is also more money for back-log maintenance. Local papers are full of Housing NSW advertisements looking for, among other things, ready to go development projects.

It will still be a little while before the impact will be felt, but you can see it coming.

I seem to be musing in a new direction. I will finish by saying that I regard the survival of the Australian print media as absolutely critical to the survival of real, informed, discussion in this country.


Friday, March 27, 2009

Milan Deroc and the rules of war

In The importance of international law - a note I pointed to the importance of international law in constraining blind national self interest as well as human savagery.

Some years ago I was given a fascinating insight into this topic through conversations with Milan Deroc. Milan and I were both working on our PhD theses at the University of New England and shared a room for a period.

Milan's thesis, The Serbian uprisings of 1941 and the British response / (1985), covered a particular episode during the Second World War. This was real cloak and dagger stuff set within a context of Balkan politics and the evolving relationship between the Allies and the Soviet Union.

Milan himself was a fascinating bloke.

I am not sure when he was born, I guess around 1918, because he entered the Royal Yugoslav army in the last officer intake before the start of the Second World War. He became a POW,then (much later I think) came to Australia from Yugoslavia.

Milan's story emerged in snippets as we chatted. Individual points emerged - I think an Uncle had been PM of Serbia at one point prior to the First World War; the links between Belgrade and Paris; visits to pre-war Paris as a young man; sipping drinks in Paris watching the world go by.

At the time we shared a room, Tito had only recently died. Yugoslavia, literally South Slavia or Land of South Slavs, still existed.

The politics of the Balkans are incredibly confusing to an outsider. Their interpretation is also much affected by ethnic, national and political positions, and not just within the Balkans themselves.

I know of no easy way of summarising Balkan history. There are, however, two key points to remember.

The first is that the area has been a zone of competition between rival interests for a very long period; between the Roman later Byzantium Empire and invading peoples; between Byzantium and the emerging Ottoman Empire; between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman later Austro-Hungarian Empire; and between Austro-Hungary and the Russian Empire.

The second point is that this history created an ethnic and religious patchwork quilt. Within this, forces of ethic nationalism and irredentism warred with each other and with the ruling power. The Austro- Hungarian Empire in particular faced the problem of maintaining unity in the face of religious division and ethnic unrest. World War One was one outcome.

At the time Milan was born, his country had only just been formed as an outcome of the peace settlements. It was then known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, combining the Kingdom of Serbia with other parts of the the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The new Kingdom was an uneasy combination of the pan nationalism of the south slavs with more specific ethnic nationalisms and especially Serbian nationalism. It was also still marked by religious divisions - Muslim vs Orthodox vs Catholic. There was also resentment within the new country at the dominance of the Serbian ruling classes.

Milan would have been at primary school when the Kingdom changed its name to Yugoslavia. He was both Serbian and Yugoslavian at the time he entered the Military Academy.

The country he returned to after release from POW camp in the USSR was very different. In The importance of international law - a note I said of the First World War:

The use of propaganda and dirty tricks on all sides during the war intended to damage the enemy while maintaining home morale created a climate that both prevented peace moves during the war and then poisoned the aftermath. Attempts to destabilise Governments in other countries exported revolution and later civil strife in ways none foresaw.

The Second World War was no different. During the War the Allies had shifted support from the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile to the Communist partisans. For their part, the Germans played to Croatian nationalism through the creation of a Croatian puppet state.

Milan returned to a communist Yugoslavia. He also returned to one in which ethnic and religious divisions had been further inflamed by the War.

Like my own thesis, Milan's work was in some ways an exploration of his own past. Again like mine although much more so, he faced a difficult task because he was writing outside - indeed challenging - commonly accepted views.

Milan was multi-lingual. Prior to the War he spoke Serbo Croat, French and some German. During the war he learned Russian. He needed all these languages to pursue his investigations through German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, British and US archives.

The work was painstaking and sometimes difficult. Painstaking, because he needed to check precise dates and orders of events, cross-tabulating between different accounts. Difficult, because he needed access to very specific records of still sensitive war time operations.

Take, as an example, the question of a radio. As I remember, this was carried into Yugoslavia by a British operative. The official story was that he had been killed by the Chetniks. While the Chetniks denied this, it was used as one of the ostensible justifications for the switch in British support to the Partisans.

By careful checking of records in four national archives, checking that went down to the log-books of a British submarine as well as unit records within the German Army, he traced the radio's journey. The final clue came from USSR archives. Here he was able to establish that the radio in question was being used in communications between Moscow and the partisans at a time when it was alleged to be in Chetnik possession.

Milan's work focused in part on the laws of war and the way they were observed. This included questions such as the legal position of a defeated army where their Government had surrendered.  

In all this, two examples stand out in my mind.

The first is a unit level example.

The Germans announced that for each German soldier killed, so many Yugoslavs were to be executed. In the case of one attack, the German unit records say something like this. So many German soldiers killed minus the number of attackers killed = the number to be used in calculating the number to be executed in reprisal.This is a very precise and legalistic way of doing things.

The second is a little more complicated.

As I remember it, under the rules of war, a defeated army must lay down its arms. Units that keep fighting have no legal protection. Once the Royal Yugoslav Government was established in exile and recognised by the British, then its fighters were recognised as soldiers. By contrast, the Partisans were treated as what we would call today terrorists. They had no protection.

Now the odd thing here is that when the British Government switched its recognition to the Partisans, the Germans also changed their position. Now the Partisans were soldiers, those on the other side including especially the Chetniks would be classified as terrorists if they fought the Germans.

I am not sure that I have all this right. It's a long time ago. However, it does illustrate my starting point, the importance of international law (and conventions) in constraining blind self-interest and savagery.    

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Government policies: a selected list

My thanks to Gordon Smith for alerting me to Government policies: a selected list.

This blog started in 2006. It is, as the name suggests, a compendium of policy announcements by various State and Federal Governments. I have to do some checks, but on the surface it looks interesting for those with obsessive interests in some of the things Australian Governments have been doing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Long, lean, lanky - Australians' changing form

Geoffrey Blainey's Black Kettle and Full Moon: Daily Life in a Vanished Australia (Penguin 2001) is my latest train reading. It is a fascinating book, exploring how Australians lived from the gold rushes until the First World War.  While the book is likely to be of most interest to Australians, I suspect that all readers will find it of some interest.

Growing up, one of the common stereotypes of Australians that appeared in books and films presented them as sun-bronzed, tall and lean, even lanky. Sun bronzed can easily be understood by modern urban Australians because of their obsession with the beach, although they are likely to misinterpret it, but tall and lean?

What Australians ate, how they prepared it, how they ate it, changed greatly over the period Blainey wrote about. Despite that, new arrivals all generally commented on one thing, the availability of cheap food and especially meat compared to Europe. On Blainey's measures, Australians were the greatest meat eaters in the world.

The ready availability of a plentiful, high protein diet helps explain the tall part. There is plenty of evidence to show people do increase in height over generations if well fed.

The lean part is a little harder to understand. While the "standard" Australian meal did vary between groups and over time, modern Australians would find the composition of the diet and especially the quantity of food consumed strange. They would find it hard to understand why people did not put on weight, why there were so few fat people.

The answer lies in exercise. Many jobs involved very hard physical labour over extended periods, lifting and carrying weights that were then standard, but would not be allowed today. Then, too, people walked or, a little later cycled, far more, often over long distances. A high calorie intake was required to feed the machine.

There were overweight people, especially in the more sedentary urban upper middle class. This group included the 10-15% of Australians who could afford servants. But for many Australians, the high calorie intake was the minimum required, and sometimes not that, to keep going.    

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Problems with language and definition in public policy

I am still mildly annoyed with myself over the misuse of the word community that I referred to in Problems with words and measurements. Annoyed because I too have been guilty from time to time of using the word loosely.

In some ways life is too short to always subject things people say to semantic analysis; the working assumption that the writer or speaker means the same thing by a word that you do does make life easier. Yet there are a lot of cases around at present that show the way in which words can be misused.

I was just thinking of some of the examples that I have quoted over the last year or so.

The misuse of the word racist or racial prejudice to describe things that have nothing to do with race, but instead relate to other forms of perceived prejudice.

The use of the words efficiency dividend. This implies a return from increased efficiency - who could argue with that - when in fact it is a device to try to force increased efficiency.

The use of the phrase risk management when in fact the writer really means risk avoidance.

There is a special problem with official English - I am sure with official French or Chinese as well - because of the way that English builds up what is in fact jargon that rests on and is influenced by underlying administrative concepts and structures.

Consider, as an example, the current use of the words remote and very remote, something of great interest to the Commonwealth Government in an Aboriginal context. As often used in official quarters, these words actually mean remote and very remote as defined by ARIA.

ARIA is simply a mechanical device for measuring remoteness using simple criteria. At this level it can be useful if limited measure. However, difficulties arise if the measure is used to define boundaries for public policy purposes.

To illustrate with a simple example.

The NSW country town of Balranald has a population of around 1500 and lies more than 850k (over ten hours driving time) south west of Sydney. Under ARIA it is classified as outer regional.

Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, is also classified as outer regional. Do the people in Balranald have the same real access to services as those in Darwin? Clearly not. The comparison is silly. Yet the use of ARIA for policy purposes implies that they do.

Take Sydney. Australians all know what Sydney is. Or do we?

I, for one, have been caught out here because I failed to realise that the often quoted statistics for Sydney actually refer to the Sydney Statistical District. This includes the Blue Mountains to the west of the city, the Central Coast to the north.

The problem here is that statistics drive policy, and both statistics and policies are affected by constantly changing boundaries adopted for political, administrative and public policy purposes. There are now at least three very different definitions of Sydney.

To extend the argument, consider the NSW or New England Mid-North Coast. Historically, this term is used to describe the coastal strip between the Northern Rivers in the north and the Hunter Valley. More recently, the NSW Government has excised the Clarence Valley - the biggest of the Northern Rivers - from the Northern Rivers and added it to the Mid-North Coast.

This may sound a small change. Does it matter? Apart from creating confusion in historical terms, it actually invalidates - creates a break - in past statistical series.

It has become almost impossible without considerable local and technical knowledge, a fair bit of time and sometimes expense to undertake comparative analysis of performance over time at sub-state level.

I recently had cause to look at a simple statistical table. All I wanted to do was to add a column showing results from the 2006 census. To do this, I had to work out the geographic boundaries that had been used to ensure that I was comparing like with like.

I could not work out how the previous numbers had been derived. I kept on coming up with different numbers. I do not know whether it is a boundary problem, or simply one due to revisions of past statistics. Frustrated, I gave up.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Problems with words and measurements

Just a few comments tonight.

A conversation today with a colleague gave me pause. She complained that the word community had become a much misused word. Whenever she heard it, she asked at once what it meant in the mind of the writer.

The example she gave was a simple one.

Take some people who have a fight. This is a bad thing when it spreads over into civil disorder. The papers report it. We ask why?

Now assume that the papers say that the fight was between members of the Pacific Island and Aboriginal communities. This is war talk. The meaning changes. But how do we know that it wasn't simply a brawl? What do the writers actually mean by community?

This is a misuse of words. But what about misuse of numbers, the failure to critically examine underlying premises?

Here I want to use an example from Neil. Not, I hasten to add, to attack Neil, but because he has actually brought out an example of what I see as sloppy thinking.

I suggest that you read first Who are you calling an ideologue?. This post deals with a debate in Australia about the teaching of English. Without going into the details, this debate links to Australia's own unique culture wars, a clash of ideas enveloped in political venom on both sides.

If you look at Miranda Devine's article, and assuming her reporting is in any way correct, then Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine's response falls to the same class.

Neil, an experienced English teacher, is sympathetic to Brian Cambourne's position, but also believes the whole debate misses the point - there is no single solution. Neil is right. I think that I can show quite simply and clearly that the debate is misdirected.

Complaints from university lecturers about the literacy of new students first emerged in the eighties and have continued. Business interests complain as well.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the standard of English teaching has declined. This seems self-evident. But is there another explanation?

Two things have changed since I started University.

The first is the huge increase in the proportion of the Australian population going to university. In purely statistical terms, this means that the absolute number of people with lower English ability is likely to have increased. Then, too, we have changed marking approaches with a greater emphasis on multiple choice or short answer questions intended to test specific knowledge as compared to the old exam essay approach.

So does the apparent decline in English standards reflect teaching failures, or simply increases in student numbers combined with different examination approaches? Is it possible that English teaching has in fact been a success because it has been able to compensate, to some degree at least, for other changes?

My point here, and it is one that I make so often, is the need in these debates to subject the analysis to very basic questions, to look for alternative solutions and meanings.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A brief political meander

In writing Brian Pape's Constitutional Challenge I checked the comments sections on a couple of newspaper stories. Generally the comments divided on Party lines. I was struck by the savagery of some of the comments. People really wanted to see Mr Pape punished for his temerity.

This is actually quite an important case. Professor George Williams had a very good summary of the issues in the Sydney Morning Herald, while Ken Parish has a useful post on Club Troppo. The link to the Williams piece came from Ken's post.

For the benefit of international readers, under the Australian constitution the Commonwealth is granted power in certain areas. All other powers remain with the states.

Over time, Australia's High Court has widened the interpretation of the Commonwealth's powers. The Commonwealth Government has also become financially dominant in a way not envisaged at Federation. This has allowed it to move into areas still formally the domain of the states through the provision of tied financial support.

The combination of High Court decisions with the Commonwealth's use of its financial power has increasingly constrained the real freedom of the Australian states. The importance of the Pape case is that the decision may either roll-back Commonwealth power over the states or, alternatively, reinforce it.

Labor's comfortable win in yesterday's Queensland elections came as a bit of a surprise because the polls had been suggesting the opposite. Apparently there was a late shift in voter intentions from mid week.

Queensland elections have become more important simply because Queensland has become more important in national terms. Queensland's population growth has been higher in absolute terms than either NSW or Victoria, with growth concentrated especially in the south east corner - the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Gold Coast connurbation.

One side-effect of this is that NSW will lose another seat in the Federal Parliament to Queensland. Given population shifts in New South Wales, this will have to come from inland New South Wales, reducing the number of seats outside Sydney and the coastal strip from eight to seven, seven to six if you count Eden-Monaro as coastal; the seat includes the NSW south coast.

These are seriously big electorates already. Farrer is almost 200,000 square kilometres, Parkes 107,000 square square kilometres. It becomes very hard to provide effective local representation in these circumstances. Having campaigned in the country when electorates were somewhat smaller, I do not envy the MPs involved.

Time to finish. I have a lot of things to do today, so I need to get going if I am to have any hope of completing my list.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - threads in Australia's future

Last night I went to the flag ceremony at Sydney University's International House. This is an annual event celebrating diversity among the student residents, as well as IH's role in helping build international understanding. Thirty eight nationalities took part.

This year, those attending wore little flags to indicate nationality. In some cases, more than one flag. This indicated in a visual way, especially in the Australian case, something about the mixing process now underway. At a rough count, the Australians present came from more than a dozen national backgrounds. I see this too on the buses and trains of Sydney, Australia's main melting pot.

I very much enjoyed the International House function as I generally do. However, it also continued the evolution of my own thinking on the changes taking place in Australia.

Those who read this blog will know something about my evolving pre-occupations and thoughts because I use blogging as my main medium for self-expression.

Since my first post in March 2006, I have written well over 2000 posts across my blogs. That's a lot of words.

During that time my thoughts have evolved through the writing and discussion process, as well as the supporting reading I have done. My views today are not the same as they were in March 2006, although some of the shifts may be difficult to see because they are shifts in focus and nuance.

Given all this, I thought that I would take the opportunity of this morning's musings to outline some of the issues that I consider to be important to Australia's future. I am doing so for my own benefit, a semi-colon in the writing process. However, I hope that they will be of some interest to readers as well.

Maintaining Unity in Diversity

In the year to end September, Australia's estimated migrant intake was 235,900. That's a very big number, over one per cent of the current population, large enough of itself to mark a further shift in the composition of the Australian people.

If we drop below this number, we find that just over 228,000 people left Australia. So around one Australian resident in every one hundred left the country, again a big number.

These departures were more than offset by just over 435,000 new arrivals. This is a very big number indeed. It means that at end September one Australian resident in fifty did not live in Australia twelve months before.

This change in the composition of the Australian people is larger than the changes associated with the post war migration program. Further, our non-discriminatory migration policy means that immigration on this scale is visibly changing the ethnic and national mix of Australia's population.

I support this change. We have no choice because of our needs for people, as well as our geographic location. It may be, as some argue on the left and right of politics, that our immigration rates are too high. However, variations in migration rates may slow or speed the change process, but will not change its direction.

We should not be blind to the difficulties in our path. We are trying to create a genuinely multi-ethnic country, melding the existing population with new arrivals who carry with them their own historic prejudices, rivalries and tensions.

If you look at what I have written about in this area, you will see that I have focused on two main issues. The first is the need to avoid change out-running our capacity to adjust. The second is the need to find the best way to integrate our new people, to create and maintain the unity necessary for Australia to survive and succeed as a nation.

I have consistently argued that, by global standards, Australia is not a racist country. This does not mean, however, that prejudices about race, ethnicity and religion do not exist. They obviously do and have to be managed if we are to be successful in what we have set out to do.

Success depends upon tolerance, upon acceptance of difference. It also depends upon understanding of other groups. We have to create that understanding.

If you look at some of my recent train reading, you will see that I have been refreshing my knowledge not just on the etiology of racial views, but also on the historical causes and outcomes of ethnic tensions especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Our Indigenous Peoples

I have written a lot on indigenous issues because I regard this as an important area.

My interest began all those years ago with my involvement in the then very new study of Australian pre-history. I came back to the issue through my blogging, through my disquiet at what I saw as wrong directions in discussion and public policy.

Most recently I have had the opportunity to actually work within an Indigenous context, talking to Indigenous people in the office and especially outside during smoke breaks.

While this has actually limited what I can say on current events including putting my posts with Joe on hold for the moment while I worked through what I could write about, you can still often guess what I am doing at any time because it flows over indirectly into my writing and reading.

As so often happens, I have retained my historical focus. To my mind, you cannot understand current events if you do not understand their past.

I read Jim Fletcher's history of Aboriginal education in NSW not just because I wanted to fill a gap in my planned history of New England, but also because the book dealt with elements of the past of people that I was working with.

In somewhat similar vein, I purchased and read John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia as a way of refreshing my knowledge about the long sweep of Indigenous occupation of this country. I was also interested, although I did not say this at the time, in the degree to which current patterns of mobility within Indigenous communities reflected the Indigenous past.

My train reading has now switched to Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury's book Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007).

Given the powerful regionalism that affects my writing, my own sense of country is as strong and not dissimilar from that held by many Indigenous people, I was pleased to note that Michael Dillon spent some time at school in Armidale and has a masters from UNE. You cannot get away from us!

With a foreword by Fred Chaney, this is a seriously good book. It says many of the things that I have tried to say, just better, over the last few years. Everybody interested in indigenous issues should read it.

It is also a flawed book in that it is dominated, despite the authors' explicit recognition of Indigenous diversity, by Northern Territory experience.

While I cannot presently comment on some current events, I will do a proper review of the book in due course as an important public policy analysis.

In all this reading, writing and discussion, my own views have shifted. I think that my views on public policy have held up pretty well. However, I am far more sympathetic to elements of thinking within the Indigenous community than I was a few years ago.

I regard resolution of of the relationship between Indigenous Australians and the broader community as a critical national issue. However, and without going into details here because it would detract from my main point, I have formed the view that it may take as long as twenty years to bed this down.

I say this because I think that generational change is required in both the Indigenous and broader Australian community before we can really escape from mind traps set by the past.

Survival of a Small Rich Country

In economic and population terms, Australia is a small rich country perched on the edge of the Asian land mass.

In population terms, we presently rank around 53 in the world. In economic terms, 14 or 15th. In military terms, the combination of our wealth with access to technology makes us something of a regional super power.

On current ABS projections, the Australian population in 2051 is projected to increase to between 30 and 40 million people. While this is a large increase in absolute terms, we still drop sharply in global population rankings.

We will also drop sharply in economic ranking.The process here will be a little slower in terms of country rankings because of the big gap between Australian GDP and that holding in countries behind us.

Of more importance, the gap between our GDP and the countries in front of us is likely to widen very sharply. We may retain our nominal place in the G20, but our share of world GDP is likely to fall from the current level of around 1.4% to below 1%.

In military terms, we are going to struggle to maintain a military edge as other countries catch up in technological terms.

As I have tried to explore in a number of posts, this basic pattern drives Australian trade, foreign and defence policy.

To this point, I think that successive Australian Governments have been quite clever in these areas and especially in trade policy.

At one level, we have worked for freer global trade, while also establishing a growing network of free trade agreements that reflects the dynamics of future world economic power. The Australian Government's greater emphasis on Africa - previously the ignored continent - is the latest building block.

From this point, our life is likely to get a lot more complicated. How we handle those complications will be very important to our future as a nation. Here I want to point to just four issues that I written about.

The first is the likely Pacification of Australia.

Australia used to think of itself as a Pacific Country, but then we started to ignore the Pacific as our focus shifted to Asia. This was a mistake, one that the Howard Government had to struggle to correct.

Absolute population numbers in the Pacific are not high in absolute terms. However, they are high relative to the populations of Australia and especially New Zealand. They are also growing quite fast. By 2050, there is likely to be one Papuan for every three of the then Australian population.

Australia has a powerful vested interest in the resolution of Pacific problems. If we fail, we are going to face powerful pressures on our borders. Even with success, we are still going to see a rapid rise in the absolute numbers of Melanesians and Polynesians living in Australia.

The second issue is the importance of ASEAN.

ASEAN is critical to us along three dimensions; it sits across key trade routes; it is Australia's northern strategic buffer; and it is a key economic partner. The successful development of and relations with the ASEAN countries and especially Indonesia is arguably the key strategic issue from an Australian perspective.

The third issue is the need to find a balance in our evolving relations with the US, China, Japan and India. This is presently seen as perhaps the key strategic issue, although I would still place ASEAN first from a longer term perspective.

The last issue is the need to avoid Australian hubris and arrogance.

As I have commented in some of my posts on Mr Rudd, I get very uncomfortable when I see an Australian leader big-noting this country. Among other things, this plays to a continued inward looking prejudice within the Australian community about our superiority and place in the world.

I would feel far more comfortable if our approach were more low key, displaying greater recognition of the need to be subtle and clever if we are to properly manage the challenges we face as a country.

Retreat from the Bush

In Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia, the authors make the point that the continued failure of official policy towards the Aborigines is due in part to official disengagement not just with our Indigenous people but, more broadly, with all of remote and regional Australia. The two are linked because so many Indigenous people live in regional Australia and are therefore directly affected by its continued decline.

I have written about this issue along many dimensions because it is personally important to me: the way official policies accentuate regional decline; conflicts over water; metro failure to recognise that our food supply and key exports come from regional Australia; failure to recognise that current policies are creating islands of disadvantage; and so on.

In writing, I have slowly formed the view that while decline was not inevitable, the impact of the policies and structures creating the decline may now have reached the point that the monetary cost of reversal has become simply too great for city based politicians to consider in the absence of some form of social disaster.

I think that we will pay a price for this. Part of that price will be continued Indigenous disadvantage, as well as social dislocation. The price may include social disaster.

I recognise that this sounds extreme. To explain why I think this would require a long and carefully worded post in its own right. For the moment, let me leave it as a bald statement without amplification or justification.

Problems in Management, Public Policy and Administration

Quite a bit of my writing across blogs has addressed management issues.

Some of this has been purely practical: how to design a good staff appraisal system; the importance of on-job learning; the need for effective delegation. More has dealt with what I see as trends: our obsession with quantification; the rise of key performance indicators; the impact of what I see as our obsession with control and risk avoidance.

Beyond the purely practical, I suppose that my key message has been that our systems no longer work very well in either public or private sectors.

When I started writing, I had no idea that that we would soon face a global financial crisis, nor that that global crisis was (at least in theory) predictable from my own writing. I only knew that our systems no longer worked.

In terms of this particular muse, Australia badly needs better management.

We do not need a system that leads analysts such as myself to take major Government pronouncements and automatically add six months to stated impact dates to accommodate our current administrative systems. We do not need a system where achievement of stated outcomes will in fact leave the underlying problems unresolved, where the outcomes are disconnected from real need.

These problems are not limited to the public sector.

For much of the last two decades, my major advisory work has been in the private and not for profit sector. Here I have found performance measurement systems that do not reflect real firm performance. I have seen information systems that have very little real linkage to actual firm operations. I have seen managers struggle with short term objectives that they know will detract from the longer term.

In a professional sense, I have struggled with my inability to get key messages across.

In many cases there is little reason to provide new substantive advice because those who commission the work do not have the power to affect real changes. To be helpful, advice must be constrained by what the specific person or persons can in fact do.

Even when dealing at CEO level there are problems.

Consider this. How do you tell a CEO that they should not attempt to achieve the immediate performance objectives on which their pay depends? How do you say that they may get the results and the cash, but leave the firm in a weakened position? It is very hard to do so, equally hard to get the CEO to accept the advice.

In all this, I have become a management radical in that I want to tear existing systems down. Alternatively, I have become a conservative in that I want to go back to elements of the past.

Enough, I think, for the present. It is hard campaigning for change where the change involves a return to the past. But then, a lot of my arguments do!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Brian Pape's Constitutional Challenge

Brian Pape


The case brought before the High Court by University of New England senior law lecturer Brian Pape arguing that the $900 bonus payment in the Australian Government's stimulus package is unconstitutional has really fluttered the pigeons.

Brian and I share share some views in common. Like me, he is a new stater, wishing to see subdivision of existing states. Like him, I support clear demarcation of Commonwealth and State powers, with genuine state independence within their powers.

I am not suggesting that all of our views are common. They are not. However, I find it interesting that this case has come out of the political and historical tradition I so often write about.

The collapse of the New England New State Movement after the loss of the 1967 plebiscite removed one of the main forces pressing for constitutional revision, one that had had a significant influence on constitutional ideas at a national level.

The Movement wanted constitutional change to make new states easier to create. However, this required it and its supporters including David Drummond as its main constitutional writer to articulate broader principles as to the way the constitution should operate.

Like Drummond, I do not believe in blind state rights, nor do I believe that distribution of powers should be fixed for ever. However, I do have real problems with the creeping centralisation enforced through the Commonwealth's financial muscle. It doesn't work very well.

I also have real problems with the way constitutional discussion in Australia has become trivialised, really focused on single issues without looking at the underlying constitutional principles. 

The case is listed for hearing on 30 March. Mr Pape clearly has an arguable case or the matter would not have been listed. However, the ramifications for the entire structure of present Commonwealth-State financial relations are such that it is hard to see the Court ruling in his favour.

I shall watch with interest. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009

NSW strikes another Hitlerian blow

Despite my personal pre-occupations, life continues around me in its usual interesting way. A bit rude really. The world should stop when I stop!

I was not surprised that the Government's alcopops tax went down. I outlined the reasons why I thought that it was a silly decision in the first place in Alcopops and mixed drinks - The Head strikes.

I have not changed my view. If anything, I think that the current obsessions with the evils of drink and the consequent Government responses at national, state and local level have gone right over the top. My core charge is this: they set false standards in terms of level of consumption and then introduce dramatic moves to control or influence based on those standards. There is little discussion on core problems.

I accept that I am increasingly out of sympathy with the Australian world of 2009. Well consider this. I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald:

A ban on smoking in all psychiatric facilities will go ahead despite vehement opposition from some members of the mental health community, who argue that strict anti-smoking rules will destabilise acutely ill patients and put staff at risk of violence.

NSW Health has ordered all facilities, including emergency psychiatric centres, to close designated outdoor smoking areas, confiscate tobacco products and supply free nicotine replacement therapy to staff and patients.

If accurate, this is one of the most inhumane statements I have ever heard. It would do Hitler proud.

To begin with, smoking is legal. This statement says that smoking will be stopped even in areas where smokers cannot harm others.

An above average number of those with psychiatric illness smoke. In the case of people with schizophrenia it rises to two thirds. What are they going to do with these people, hold them down so that a patch can be applied and then wait?

The core need with mentally ill patients is to help them. That is why they are in hospital. If you add stress, you hinder cures. You also increase the number of mentally ill people who may refuse to go to hospital.

There are already major problems in the mental health area. There are problems in finding hospital beds. There are problems in getting patients to accept treatment if beds are available.

Recently I was sitting beside someone whose sister was sick. Day after day, phone conversation after phone conversation, she wrestled with the problems of mental illness.

This new NSW rule will not save a single person from smoking induced illness. It will hurt people with mental illness.

Fewer people will want to accept help. More of those that do will suffer. This is health political correctness gone crazy.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Just a note

Just a short note this morning. Ramana's wife died on 13 March. My thoughts are with he and the family.

Still struggling to catch up, I find that my current life style allows me more time to read because of the extra travel time, less time for writing and personal business. I have yet to work out a balance.

Work, too, has been busy. I have temporarily moved from my short term contract role to short term acting in a line position to fill a gap. While I am enjoying this, I enjoy the management side, it further constrains time.

Not complaining, just noting. Now that I have started to catch up a little, I hope to have at least my emails back under control by the end of the week. While this is going on, posting is likely to continue to be somewhat irregular.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Belshaw's World

With interruptions because of my computer and internet problems, I have begun posting the weekly columns that I have been writing for the Armidale Express. They are not on-line, so this makes then accessible to a broader audience.

Those that are interested can find the combined columns here.

The importance of international law - a note

In my train reading I have finally finished Edmond Taylor’s The fall of the Dynasties, the collapse of the old order 1905-1922.

The last part of the book deals with the end of the First World War, the "peace settlements" and the collapse of the old order. I have put "peace settlements" in inverted commas because these were war settlements, revenge for perceived past wrongs that laid the basis for an even bigger conflagration.

We all read from our own perspectives. In my case, the history I studied at school was written from a British perspective in that it was Empire, Commonwealth and Australian centric. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, all histories are centric in one way or another. However, it does limit understanding.

Looking at the period from the perspective of Australian writing, the war ends, the troops come home, life resumes. Then, suddenly, war clouds loom again in Europe and Asia.

I knew about the peace settlements and the troubles that followed the end of the First World War. I had no real idea of their complexity and savagery, things that laid the basis for the rise of Hitler.

There is something very "modern" about this period.

The use of propaganda and dirty tricks on all sides during the war intended to damage the enemy while maintaining home morale created a climate that both prevented peace moves during the war and then poisoned the aftermath. Attempts to destabilise Governments in other countries exported revolution and later civil strife in ways none foresaw.

Old grudges die hard. Led by Georges Benjamin Clemenceau, the French in particular played a significant role in creating war and then through their actions during the peace treaty negotiations laying the basis for a second war.

I do not have time to tease these issues out here. At this stage, I simply wanted to note the importance of international law in constraining blind national self interest as well as human savagery.

I should note that I am using the phrase "international law" in a very broad sense.

I claim no special expertise in this area. However, I think it worthwhile looking at the topic from an historical perspective because of its current importance. Here World War One provides a useful entry point.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Round the blogs - Neil Whitfield, Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite, Gordon Smith, Michael Pettis, Niar and the scepticslawyers

Neil's Google Reader was an absolute godsend while my on-line access was so limited. It gave me at least the illusion of staying in touch. Now with on-line access and a working computer again, I have begun the slow process of catching up. To that end, I thought that I would devote this post to a review of other people's thoughts and writing in our immediate blogging world.

Neil himself has been suffering from depression. If my own experience is any guide, I went through a very depressed period a few years ago, it becomes harder to do things. This then feeds back into the depression. I hope that Neil will maintain the blogs - they are very important to many of us, and also fight the feeling of isolation that can be associated with depression.

I will start this blogging tour in New England. There I see that Lynne Sanders-Braithwaite in CENTRELINK PONDERINGS has adopted my pet peeves approach. In this case, Lynne's pet peeve was triggered by a Centrelink experience.

For the benefit of international readers, Centrelink is the national agency responsible for the majority of payments such as pensions, for monitoring and enforcing compliance with payment conditions. It is a very large organisation.

The difficulty that Lynne refers to in her post is the way in which a "one size fits all" approach - in this case action to help people find work - makes it hard for people who are not in fact of the right size, whose needs are different.

This is a particular problem for older people - really any one over fifty - with experience. Approaches designed for younger job seekers on welfare really don't work.

There is something very mechanistic about modern Government and indeed nearly every modern organisation. They are computer based, not just in reliance on centralised computer based systems for operations, but in the very thinking that underpins activities. This involves increasingly complex decision rules with very little scope for human discretion.

20090307-12-05-21-cunnawarra-national-park-georges-creek Still in New England, I have really missed Gordon's lookANDSee.This photo shows Georges Creek in the Gorge country to the south east of Armidale.

It is a pretty and very familiar scene.

In his caption to the photo, Gordon notes that the Creek at this point is on the edge of the Cunnawarra National Park. So much of New England is now tied up in national parks that I am beginning to lose track. I had to check where this park was.

The map below shows the location of the park. It actually occupies what was state forest country that I knew very well linking the New England and Oxley Wild Rivers National Parks.

For those who do not know this area at all, the coast lies to the right of the map. At the top of the map is the road linking Armidale with Grafton, Dorrigo and the coast. The road running to the bottom right of the map links Armidale with Kempsey. The bottom two thirds of the map covers the headwaters of the Macleay River. At the top of the map, you are entering the Clarence River catchment area.

The map covers some very beautiful country that is far less known now than it was forty or fifty years ago. Cunnawarra National Park

Turning now to economics, there have been some times recently when I have felt like a pollyanna in a world of gloom and doom. I have just not had the time nor the on-line access that I needed to write what I wanted to.

During the week Michael Pettis had what i thought was a remarkably good post, Trade, CPI and other numbers came in this week, on the latest Chinese economic data. The post is very relevant because it coincided with the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), as well as the forthcoming G20 summit.  

In general, I try to avoid making detailed economic forecasts; they are bound to be wrong and I also don't think that they are very helpful. Instead, I try as best I can to look at relationships and patterns.

I think it helpful in considering current problems to remember that the world had entered an economic slowdown prior to the global financial crisis. This is part of the reason why the crisis had such an impact on the real economy. It reinforced existing trends.

I also think it helpful to remember the importance of lags and links. To a degree, we live in a see problem, fix problem world. We expect instant responses. Here I have tried to make the point that the various global stimulus initiatives will just take time to work.

Accepting my reluctance to make forecasts, my feeling at the moment is that we are close to if not at the bottom of the downturn. If I am right, there will still be more bad economic news from what economists call lagging indicators, unemployment is one, but we are now going to see an increasing number of neutral to positive statistics.

As a simple example, last year I had not realised until I went to China in September that Chinese car sales (among other indicators) were falling. This is important because I came out of Australia where national reporting presented an unremittingly positive view on the Chinese economy. Now Michael reports that Chinese car sales have recorded a monthly increase.

By the way, and on a different topic, I could not help noticing that the People's Daily  is presently featuring "Tibet sets Serfs Emancipation Day." 

Eight o'clock. I am running out of time!

In Indonesia, Niar had an interesting post, the Running of Human Rights Condition Over South East Asia Nations, on human rights in ASEAN.

I noticed that Australian comment on the Burmese refugee tragedy in Thailand was very muted. Not putting too fine a point on it, the actions of sections of the Thai military, if correctly reported, amounted to murder.

I remember the period of the Vietnamese boat people and somewhat similar actions in certain ASEAN countries. There was a degree of outrage in Australia.

This was a different world.  I quote from the introduction to the 1977 Cabinet records:

In May Cabinet considered the plight of Indo-Chinese refugees in Thailand, Malaysia and on boats, noting that there had been some criticism of Australia’s ‘inadequate’ and ‘ad hoc’ response to the issue. Refugees, like Aboriginals, were a group that Fraser believed strongly the Government had an obligation to assist. Cabinet affirmed that Australia recognised a humanitarian commitment to assist refugees to resettle in Australia or elsewhere. By November 17 boats had arrived with 647 people and it was believed that another 4000 people were at sea.

11403409-650_tcm2-9538The photo from Australian Archives shows two of several small wooden fishing vessels in Darwin harbour on 2 November 1977. These vessels brought 259 Vietnamese refugees to Australia – 126 men, 44 women and 89 children.

One of the things that I find hard to forgive the Howard Government for is its coarsening of the Australian spirit that came about through its inhumane treatment of refugees.

8.33. Mmm! 

In Ozymandias or, when a city dies, Skepticlawer looks at the decline of Detroit. Do read the post and then click through to the Time photo essay on which Helen bases her post. There is something hauntingly sad about the photos.

While both Helen and Katy have praised the standard of some of my own writing, and my thanks for that, the consistent standard of some of the writing on scepticslawyer gives me something of an inferiority complex!

I have barely scratched the surface, but am out of time. More in another post.    

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back on line

While there are a few things still to be worked out, I am back on line including my bookmarks and emails. It will take me a little while to catch up, I am over 200 hundred emails behind excluding the usual crap, but I will get there!

Saturday Morning Musings- Australian prehistory

I have suggested before that it is a pity that current Australians do not seem to have full access to the long history of human occupation on this continent.

It is not known when the Australian Aborigines first arrived in Sahul, the name given to the broader land mass including Australia and New Guinea that existed during the Pleistocene period when sea levels were much lower than today. Based on current evidence, the best estimate seems to be 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, although it could be longer.

The question as to whether there was one or several waves of human settlement with later waves replacing earlier groups still seems to be open to question. Based on the discussion in John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia, my gut judgement would be that the early arrivals quickly built up a population mass such that later arrivals probably melded in. I base this in part on difficulties of transportation; people probably came in small groups.

40,000 to 50,000 years is a very long time in human terms, long enough for the human occupants of the continent to experience major environmental changes.

At the time the first humans arrived in what would become Australia, sea levels were somewhere between 60 and 85 metres below current levels. Sea levels fluctuated considerably between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, so the level depends upon the exact time the first small groups landed on what would become Australian shores.

Lower sea levels meant that Sahul was considerably larger than the modern continent. Neither Torres Strait nor Bass Strait existed. The northern shore line swept in a north easterly direction from well west of current Darwin up to modern New Guinea. The current Gulf of Carpentaria was well inland, with a large lake in the centre.

For those who love interactive maps, Monash University has a fun interactive map that allows you to look at the impact of past changes in sea levels on the continent.

If you look at the chart on the top of the map, you will see that 120,000 or so years ago sea levels peaked at around 3 metres higher than current levels. There was then a long downward trend, but with marked fluctuations around the trend. This meant while sea levels were falling, this fall was constantly interrupted by significant rises.

Around 30,000 years ago, the world entered a sudden cold snap that lasted at least 10,000 years. Note that all dates are approximate, plus or minus thousands of years. Sea levels dropped to perhaps 130 metres plus below current levels. Small glaciers emerged in Tasmania and on the Snowy Mountains.

Sea levels then began to rise slowly. Around 13,000 years ago there was a major surge; sea levels rose 25 metres in 1,000 years, 2.5 metres every century, 25 millimetres a year. At 10,000 years BP (Before Present), Mulvaney & Kamminga suggest that there was another surge as the Antarctic ice sheet fragmented. The Monash site suggests that 10,000 years ago sea levels at Sydney were perhaps two metres higher than now.

There are uncertainties and variations in all this that increase as we narrow our date focus. However, there appears to be agreement as to overall patterns.

The long history of human occupation of Australia, together with the continent's relative isolation, means that Australian prehistory provides a remarkable if still only partially understood story of the adaptation of people to environmental change.

Expressed in human terms, the changes would generally have appeared slow, taking place over generations.

This was not always the case. Mulvaney and Kamminga suggest that on the flat Great Australian Bight and Arafura Shelf between 13,000 to 11,000 years ago, the rate of marine transgression reached one metre a week, 110 kilometres in 2,000 years. Each high tide would have exceeded the previous one.

This would have had a major impact; ten years, 520 metres of territory gone; thirty years 1,560 metres gone; those living on the sea's edge would have had to move, triggering consequential effects.

As rising sea levels stabilised, the continent pushed back. Rivers deposited sediment, forming deltas. Dunes formed, linking higher land with lakes behind. The lakes filled with sediment, extending land areas. The coastline as we know it today came into existence.

As land extended, it was colonised by plants and animals. New, richer, ecosystems formed. People moved in, re-occupying previously lost areas.

Sea level changes were associated with changes in climate that are reflected in the archaeological record. I do not want to write about these in detail, I am not sure that I understand them yet, but I can illustrate with a few examples.

Along the Murray River, a high population environment because of the richness of the riverine resources, semi-arid land crept to within a few hundred metres of much of the river. The Murray Aborigines became isolated, mixing along the river. Clan boundaries shrank, life became more sedentary, more intensive. Analysis of human remains shows evidence of periodic malnutrition associated with dry times. There is also evidence of intestinal parasites.

In the high country of the Snow Mountains and the New England, very harsh country during the colder periods, people re-occupied the land around 2,000 years ago as the climate became warmer. Population numbers were not high, but the human presence returned.

We do not fully understand these changes. We never will. However, the evolving study of the Australian past has slowly pushed back barriers, bringing the long past back to the present.

I did my honours thesis - largely an ethnohistorical study - on the traditional structure of Aboriginal economic life in Northern NSW - in 1967. When I compare what was known then with Mulvaney and Kamminga's 1999 publication, a time period of only 22 years, I can see how far we have come. Yet so much remains to be done.

Unfortunately, the present affects the study of the past. I have to be very careful how I phrase this to avoid getting caught in the wrong arguments.

When I look at Australian prehistory I am struck by two things. I stand to be corrected on both.

The first is the way that the discipline has been, as I see it, twisted by current needs.

There has been a huge increase in archaeological studies, but this has been driven by things such as heritage or rescue studies commissioned to meet particular needs. The quantum devoted to study of our prehistoric past for the sake of knowledge has shrunk. This certainly holds in relative terms and may hold in absolute terms as well.

The second is the way in which study has been restricted by the need to take into account the views of particular indigenous groups. This is the really touchy one.

Take the study of human remains as an example. These provide invaluable evidence of the past. How much weight should be placed on the views of current Aborigines who may (but in some cases clearly may not) have some form of historical linkage to those remains?

The long history of human occupation of the Australian continent is, I think, a very interesting topic in its own right, as well as something directly relevant to all Australians. I wonder why so few Australians are interested?


Neil had a useful comment on this post. He said:
It really is quite recent for Australian history books to go back any further than the first European navigators... That certainly was the history I learned in school.
Neil is right and it's all a matter of perspective. When Neil and I went to school the basic information wasn't there. That was why I found Australian prehistory so much fun at university - it was all new.

This no longer holds. The material is there.

A year or so back a book was published on Indigenous building and construction. It was reviewed more or less along the lines this is new, it shows that the Aborigines built things.

This was clear when I did my thesis in 1967, although I was surprised at the scale. Then I was entitled to be surprised. That is no longer true. There have been a number of books since including Prehistory of Australia that show this.

My question remains.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Current Thoughts

Really just a selection of current thoughts.

I will finish Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian Vocational Education and Training tomorrow.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics Australian unemployment statistics for February came out today. In seasonally adjusted terms, unemployment as officially measured increased from 4.8 to 5.2%.

I hope to write a proper post on this. For the moment, the figures were a little better than I expected and also had some interesting features. Employment is a lagging indicator, so the numbers will get worse. But still not bad.

The World Bank G20 briefing paper report on the impact of the global financial crisis on developing countries came out during the week.

It was mainly reported in Australia as a World Bank report on the global economy. It was not. The economics was largely based on previous IMF material. The focus in the paper was on the developing world. The key point was that the global financial crisis meant that only those like Australia or its banks could borrow; higher risk countries were being squeezed out. That is true, and it's a real problem.

I have switched my train reading to John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia (Allen & Unwin 1999). So much has happened since I did my first work in this area that I wanted a primer. I read this book some time ago, but now wanted my own copy.

I also looked at buying a copy of Records of times past: Ethnohistorical essays on the culture and ecology of the New England tribes, a book that includes my only formally published work on the Aborigines. I had a copy, but it is in storage and I do not know where it is. I was staggered to find that I would have to pay over $100US including freight. I guess I have to wait for a little while.

Tonight over dinner I got on a bit of a roll in discussions with eldest on Indigenous issues, outlining certain current problems. Eldest asked me if I would continue to work and write on Indigenous issues.

I explained that I did not know.

By accident of circumstance, I have recently had a chance to test some of my ideas and pre-conceptions. Some of my views have shifted at the margin. I know more than I did about some of the institutional factors. I have greater awareness of some Aboriginal divides and sensitivities. Yet my core views have also been confirmed.

I have to think about how I might write about some of this. At the moment, I don't know.


One of the strengths of Prehistory of Australia is the way it presents a picture across what is, after all, a very big landmass. There are still major gaps, but the overall picture is there.

I also found another word I did not know, cline - A gradual change in a character or feature across the distributional range of a species or population, usually correlated with an environmental or geographic transition.

I have spoken before about the variety in Aboriginal history and experience. I was always aware that there were superficial variations in Aboriginal appearance, but physical variation across the continent was greater than I had realised.

More in another post.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian Vocational Education and Training

In Sunday Essay - Julia Gillard's proposals for Australian higher education I looked at Julia Gillard's latest proposals for the university sector, the start of her response to the Bradley Inquiry. The day after her speech to the Universities Australia she spoke at the Big Skills Conference, extending her preliminary response to the VET (vocational education and training) sector.

The core of the Commonwealth Government's response is set out in two paragraphs in the speech bolded in the original:
To build these vitally needed pathways between universities and VET, I announce today that the Government will commission the Australian Qualifications Framework Council to improve the articulation and connectivity between the university and VET sectors to enable competency-based and merit-based systems to become more student-focused.

Today I am also announcing that the ambit of Skills Australia will expand to encompass the full scope of Australia’s labour market needs, to give advice to the Commonwealth about the effectiveness of both the university and VET systems in meeting the broad range of Australia’s skill needs.

Before going on, there is a wording shift here that I had not picked up before, the distinction between competency and merit based systems. No doubt it has been around for a while, but it is new to me.

I am not quite sure what the distinction implies. However, if I interpret it correctly, it equates to the difference between the VET and University sectors.

The capacity to do is central to competency. You are either competent or you are not judged against a particular standard. There are no rankings of greater or lesser competency. By contrast, university qualifications allow for variations in ranking in courses between students. I don't actually like the wording because it seems to imply that competency is not connected to merit.

The first point to note about the speech is that it continues the theme of education for national efficiency. In a sense this is more clear cut in the VET sector with its direct focus on skills formation. Even here, however, there is a problem in that our systems no longer properly accommodate those who want to study out of interest independent of any work outcome.

I actually think that this an important issue, although it is beyond the scope of this post. Part of the richness of life comes from personal interests, the deepening of personal knowledge, study for the sake of study. We need to accommodate this.

The first of the Minister's proposals deals with the role of the Australian Qualifications Council.

For the benefit of international readers, the Council oversights the Australian Qualifications Framework. This was originally established to facilitate articulation across the education and training sector from school to the highest university awards. To this end, a hierarchy of qualifications was established starting at Certificate I; all courses could then be linked to this hierarchy, in theory widening student study options and ensuring national consistency.

The Minister's wording is interesting because it links two very different things - improved "connectivity and articulation between the university and VET sectors" with "more student-focused."

I am not sure what this means.

Subject to one reservation, I support the idea of better articulation between the university and VET sectors because, properly done, it should both free the system up and improve student choice.

My reservation lies in the way the AQF has worked in the past. In combination with other Government actions, it has arguably made our systems more rigid, the opposite of the original intent.

Where I have a real problem with the Minister's words lies in the linkage with student focused. I am not sure that I understand the implications of this. It sounds nice, but I am suspicious because it may reflect an underlying confusion about the role of the AQF leading to the grafting of disconnected things onto the framework structure.

Note to readers

It is 6.20 and I have to get ready for work. I will finish this post tonight.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Camarillas and democracy

Having finished Valentine Williams’ World of Action, I am now half way through Edmond Taylor’s The fall of the Dynasties, the collapse of the old order 1905-1922. Both deal with overlapping periods and common subjects, but are otherwise very different.

Published in 1938, Williams writes of the period in Europe before and after the First World War as a journalist who observed events. Published in 1968, Taylor’s book provides a sometimes gripping historical account of much of the same period. Between them, they have introduced me to a new word, camarilla, a group of courtiers or favourites which surround a king or ruler.

Mad, bad and sometimes just plain sordid, the camarillas played a critical role in the events leading up the destruction that was World War One. War was not inevitable, the camarillas helped make it so.

There is something quite frightening in watching events spin out of control. No one really wanted a major conflagration, not even the war parties in Germany, Austria-Hungary or Russia. They wanted a more limited conflict. Yet step led to step and finally armageddon.

I will write a little about this later. For the moment, I want to make just two points.

The first is that one of the strengths of democracy as compared to autocracy is that it provides a structured way of getting rid of those in power. The European democracies - whether constitutional monarchies or republics - had their weaknesses, but were spared some of the power plays that took place in the autocratic states.

The second is the importance of transparency and due process. Camarillas can exist in democracies, we have seen examples in Australia, but their activities and influence are limited where they can be seen or exposed.